Friday, August 8, 2008


When I ran the post not long ago on musician jokes, I thought about how implicit in them is the assumption that making money at music, although always welcomed, is neither expected nor the goal. You’re a musician because you're a musician. Yet while the odds are no better in the art world, many artists I meet seem to feel that going to school, making art, and having a career should be a natural progression, like studying for the law—which isn't surprising, considering what art schools cost. Thank god, I say, there’s still—a certain Hollywood film not withstanding—no academy for rock musicians. My theory about this is as follows: along with, now, being able to use the Internet to their own best ends, musicians have always met and played in bars. And back when artists used to gather in bars such as, famously, Les Deux Magots, the Cedar Bar, and Max’s Kansas City—for the price of a beer—younger artists could hang out, form associations, and meet older, more established artists. In the eighties, however, when artists started making big money and began to frequent expensive restaurants, such as the Odeon and Mr. Chow’s, off limits to their struggling brethren, art schools took up the slack—and therefore may be seen as simply expensive substitutes for art bars. Looking back on it, a little Brouilly at the Odeon would have been cheaper.

In the August Interview, I read an exchange between filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and Brian Burton a.k.a. Danger Mouse, who achieved international fame at 27 after spending untold hours in his bedroom mashing up the Beatles “white” album with Jay Z’s The Black Album to make the The Grey Album. Intended for his friends and released for free on the Web, it was downloaded, bootlegged and shared by millions until the lawyers got in the way. His collaboration with Cee-Lo, dubbed Gnarls Barkley, resulted in “Crazy”, the song that was the summer of 2006, and he’s produced two of my favorite albums: Gorillaz’s Demon Days and the new Beck, which has a title I wish I’d made up: Modern Guilt.

In the interview, Soderbergh (whose own career began similarly, with international prominence at age 26 for the low budget film sex, lies and videotape), notes that the “traditional models for success are just disappearing” to which Danger Mouse says, “Well, in the history of humans making music, how long have musicians been rich and famous? In the end, I think musicians know that getting up in the morning and making music you love, doesn’t necessarily mean that you deserve billions of dollars or worship from anybody.” Then:

SS: I’ve heard you say that you don’t necessarily believe in talent.

DM: No, I don’t.

SS: But I’m wondering if you’re making a distinction between talent and skill.

DM: I guess I just look at talent as a very subjective thing. I mean, if you’ve never tried playing an oboe, how do you know you’re not the most talented oboe player ever? The point is that if you don’t love it, then it doesn’t matter. No matter how naturally gifted you are, it’s your passion that’s going to make you better and maybe touch some people. There is no genius—there is only love.

Looking for an illustration for this post, I was wandering around YouTube and came across this live video of “Hong Kong”—from the Gorillaz album D-Sides—a song that sends me into a swoon each time I hear it. I don’t think Danger Mouse produced “Hong Kong,” so it’s not exactly related, but then that’s the beauty of a blog, I can go where I want with it. Even though it’s not the absolutely best recording of the song, Damon Albarn will make you swoon anyway, but what’s really special about it is the performance of the beauteous Zhen Zhen on the harp-like guzheng.

1 comment:

CAP said...

Coincidentally, there was discussion of talent/skill on Eva Lake’s blogspot recently. Taking up the topic offline with a couple of friends, (psychologists) they assured me this was just the old nature/nurture conundrum.

You have to have some to get some, you only have some if you get some, and some is never enough.

The argument mostly centers around child prodigies, who seem to have outstanding abilities, but also tend to have parents or teachers from an early age with similar enthusiasms/abilities. Do they have the knack of learning early and quickly, or do they just have early and ardent teaching?

It seems you can’t really have one without the other. You would never know if you did.

It’s the same with enjoyment and ability. Most people enjoy things they’re good at, but are they good at it because they enjoy it, or vice versa? It’s a feedback loop that sees you start off on just the right foot, or purely accidentally, cultivate the things that please, avoid those you have trouble with.

But then again people do master things they weren’t at first drawn to, change their tastes, overcome inhibitions. For example there are plenty of painters who weren’t especially talented at drawing, but nevertheless excelled in painting. In fact their lack of talent at drawing probably inspired them to compensate and invent other ways of painting – notably in the use of color – like Renoir or Delacroix – or brushwork, like Van Gogh or Soutine.

So I’m inclined to agree talent is not necessarily a drawback. It’s more a matter of matching talent to a suitable channel, or discovering/inventing a suitable channel.

It’s tricky knowing exactly what to measure talent against – even academic standards in things like life-drawing change slowly. Academics are always complaining about how standards have slipped - in almost every field! It’s amazing civilization hasn’t come to a grinding halt really.

In order to have talent, or be recognized as talented, it seems you have to conform to a popular standard, but if you can’t or don’t, it shouldn’t discourage you from pursuing less recognized avenues.